As we have learned on the previous dapim, there are several different dates on the calendar that distinguish one agricultural year from another. This is significant in establishing when tithes are taken, since every individual year’s harvest must have terumot and ma’asrot taken separately. We have seen that the Mishna (2a) teaches that the first day of Tishrei is the date of the new year for vegetables, while the new year for fruits begins in Shevat when most of the year’s rains have already fallen.
The Gemara on our daf discusses the etrog, which does not follow all of the usual rules of fruit because of its unique growth and harvest cycle. The citron differs from other fruits that grew in Israel during the Talmudic period in a number of ways. For one thing, unlike other trees for which the annual winter rains sufficed for their needs, the etrog needs constant watering. Furthermore, it flowers and produces fruit all year round, so that one can find ripe fruits on the tree at the same time that new budding is taking place. For these reasons it makes sense to compare the etrog tree to vegetables, which also need constant watering and are often harvested and eaten at different times, rather than in a particular, set season.
Another factor in the confusion about establishing a set new year for the etrog tree is that in the time of the Talmud it was not common practice to plant full orchards of etrog trees. More often a small number of such trees were planted in a field that contained other trees. This led to a situation where people who came into a field during the Sabbatical year to pick the fruits that had been left to grow that were considered hefker – ownerless – would also handle the etrogim, even though their produce may have been considered part of the previous year’s harvest and should not have been taken. The Rambam explains that the Gemara’s sensitivity to people handling the etrog tree stems from its being relatively short in height with an attractive smell that led people to it. Touching any tree during its flowering period or when it first begins to bud damages the fruit. Since the etrog has continuous flowering throughout the year, too much contact with it can destroy an entire year’s produce.